Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

God Help Elections Canada

The House of Commons was tense. "We have, on numerous occasions, called for a judicial inquiry into the scandal," the Opposition leader said. "In order to reassure us that there will be no interference in the investigation into the prime minister's own party, is he prepared to agree to a judicial inquiry, yes or no?"

The prime minister was having none of it. "Mr. Speaker, the honourable member has just said that the RCMP is doing its job well and is doing its duty as far as these matters are concerned." Be patient and let the investigation proceed, he said.

The Opposition leader jumped back up. "Mr. Speaker, I gather from that answer the Prime Minister still refuses to hold an independent judicial inquiry into this ongoing scandal."

The prime minister was a stone wall. "The RCMP is doing very independent work and the auditor general, who is a very independent officer of this House, and both of them are doing their jobs as they have to. I have nothing else to add."

Of course the comment about the auditor general gives the game away. This isn't a recent exchange over the voter suppression scandal. It's the back-andforth in the House of Commons on September 15, 2003. The prime minister is Jean Chr├ętien. The Opposition leader demanding a judicial inquiry is Stephen Harper.

And yet the fit with current events is eerily close. I did have to snip the words "Liberal" and "sponsorship." And it's Elections Canada investigating now, not the auditor general. But otherwise, this nine-year-old exchange could have come from the most recent Hansard.

But that detail about the auditor general makes all the difference.

When Sheila Fraser delivered her report on the sponsorship scandal in February, 2004, it was damning. But it was also limited. The auditor general didn't have the authority to do all the muckraking that needed to be done. Having been condemned by the most respected officer in Ottawa, with worse allegations and suspicions outstanding, the Liberal government had no choice but to call a judicial inquiry. And watch it chisel the final date on its tombstone.

Today, the New Democrats and Liberals want an inquiry. The Conservative government refuses. Let Elections Canada investigate, the Tories say. (To be precise, the investigation is being carried out by the Commissioner of Canada Elections, appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada. Ultimately, Elections Canada will produce a report.)

Most pundits agree, citing the sponsorship scandal as a precedent. Wait for the Elections Canada report as we waited for the auditor general's report, they say. Then we'll see.

But the parallel is inexact. And the conclusion wrong.

The trust Canadians have in the office of the auditor general is extraordinary. That was particularly true when Sheila Fraser was the AG. Her word was gold, her integrity unquestioned.

It's safe to say that most Canadians haven't the same trust in Elections Canada simply because they know little about it. (What's the name of the Chief Electoral Officer? The Commissioner of Canada Elections? For the record, they are Marc Mayrand and William Corbett.) As a consequence, politicians are not compelled to show Elections Canada the deference they do the auditor general. And they don't.

One politician has even spent the better part of his political career attacking and insulting Elections Canada.

"The jackasses at Elections Canada are out of control," Stephen Harper wrote in a fundraising appeal for his National Citizens Coalition in 2001 (as Lawrence Martin reported recently in The Globe and Mail). Harper made many statements expressing a similar statement, if not always so colourfully, and his feelings did not improve after becoming prime minister. Instead, they spread to his party. When Elections Canada was investigating the in-and-out scandal it became an article of faith among Conservatives that the ref has it in for their team.

So what happens if Elections Canada delivers a report even a fraction as damning as the one Sheila Fraser produced in 2004? Will the government express contrition and call a judicial inquiry? Or will it carry out the mother of all hatchet jobs on Elections Canada?

Before you answer that question, recall the prime minister's record.

When the Supreme Court of Canada decided against Harper's request for an election law injunction, Harper said the ruling "displays a prejudicial bias" that "calls into question (the Supreme Court's) neutrality and open-mindedness." When gay marriage rulings didn't go the way Harper liked, he suggested the Liberals had stacked the judiciary to advance their partisan agenda.

In 2005, dissatisfied with the pace of prosecutions in the sponsorship scandal, Harper accused the RCMP of taking political direction. "The police and the authorities have to do their job," Harper said, "but I have a sneaking suspicion that this job would be done much more effectively and much more quickly if the Liberal party were not in power."

There are more items on the list but I think the point is clear. Stephen Harper has impugned the professionalism and good faith of everyone from the RCMP to the Supreme Court of Canada, and he has done so when the stakes were relatively small. So how likely is it that he would respond to an unfavourable report from an agency he has long despised, on a matter that could imperil his government, by launching a vicious campaign to impugn the professionalism and good faith of that agency? The answer must be "very."

And if that happened, it would be a disaster for the country.

The goal in all of this isn't merely to catch and punish anyone who engaged in vote fraud. It's to assure Canadians that such despicable behaviour will not taint future elections. This is about restoring faith - in our electoral system and in the legitimacy of the governments it produces. To do that, there must be universal agreement that a full and fair investigation was conducted, as there was when the auditor general's report on the sponsorship scandal was released.

But a campaign to impugn Elections Canada would destroy any hope of universal agreement. Instead, perceptions would break along partisan lines.

Faith in our electoral system could suffer, causing cynicism and detachment to spread like bacteria in a Petri dish.

A judicial inquiry called now could head that off. But it's almost impossible to imagine that happening. Stephen Harper learned everything he knows about handling scandals from Jean Chr├ętien.

That leaves only one hope: For the sake of the country, let us hope Elections Canada investigates thoroughly and determines the Conservative party did nothing wrong.